St. Barbara Church, 15th and Laurel streets, was Springfield’s Slovenian Catholic parish from 1911 until 1947.
Thirty-seven Slovenian residents of the Springfield area – many of them coal miners – formed a Slovenian Church Building Association in 1909, each pledging to pay at least 50 cents a month into a church construction fund. Two years later, with the endorsement of Catholic Bishop James Ryan of Alton (then the headquarters of the local Catholic diocese), the group paid $600 to buy the two-room Iles School from the Springfield School Board.
The remodeled building, dedicated on April 23, 1911, became St. Barbara Church. Its first pastor was a young Slovenian priest, the Rev. Albin Moder.
St. Barbara’s early years apparently saw political divisions within the parish. The Diocese of Springfield in Illinois Diamond Jubilee History by Joseph J. Thompson (1928), delivered a surprisingly sympathetic analysis.
From the day of the establishment of St. Barbara parish, not a little annoyance for priest and people came from sources usually attributed as socialistic. Whatever be the real cause of the disturbances, it is evident that the Catholic traditions of old Austria and her neighboring provinces, were often absorbed by the propaganda of agents, broadcasted by word, more often and effectively by the foreign language press.
Being poor, often uneducated, finding few to sympathize with their lot, and to preach the dignity of labor, many easily fell victims of the false economic doctrines larded so tastefully in the columns of many foreign language newspapers. The routine of the shop and mine must have its reaction. And this reaction will not be for the better, unless the principles of justice and charity are made to shine forth in social relations by the church and by the state – the former true friend of the workingman – the latter, sometimes missing that role.
Two years after the church dedication, under another pastor, Rev. Frank Saloven, St. Barbara’s raised $6,000 to build a two-room school building. Nuns from the Sisters of the Precious Blood of Alton staffed the school in 1916 (Dominican nuns replaced the Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1924). Three girls made up the first eighth-grade graduating class in 1919.
“In a few years the number of children in the school had reached almost two hundred,” according to the Jubilee history. The parish was prosperous partly because its boundaries were large – St. Barbara’s stretched far enough to take in a concentration of Slovak miners in the Ridgely neighborhood of northeast Springfield. (Slovakia is just north of Slovenia in central Europe. Although Slovenes and Slovaks are different ethnic groups, Springfield’s Slovakian community was too small to support its own church. As a result, many Slovaks attended services at St. Barbara Church.)
In 1928, the Diamond Jubilee History reported, St. Barbara’s parish property “consists of almost a city block, with church, school, rectory, sister’s house, auditorium and sexton’s home. The valuation of the property is $70,000, with $20,000 liabilities.”
That same year, however, St. Barbara’s pastor Rev. Ernest Burtle was reassigned to organize the northeast side St. Aloysius Parish, costing St. Barbara’s a crucial group of parishioners.
A decade later, with the Great Depression squeezing St. Barbara’s working-class parishioners, St. Barbara’s Elementary School was financially unable to reopen for the 1935-36 school year. The school never reopened, despite strenuous fundraising efforts by St. Barbara’s high-profile pastor during the 1930s, Rev. John Brockmeier.
The school property was later used for night classes for laborers (a project of Brockmeier’s, who was dubbed Springfield’s “labor priest”) and as a site for public afterschool programs. In 1948, the school’s former auditorium became the home of the Springfield Theater Guild and, finally, the site of Catholic youth programs.
The closure of St. Barbara’s coincided with Bishop James Griffin’s creation in 1946 of the parishes of Little Flower and St. Frances Cabrini, which split much of the territory that formerly constituted St. Barbara Parish. Although public masses continued to be held at the church into the early 1950s, St. Barbara’s last pastor was Rev. Jerome Jacek, who was transferred to St. Benedict Parish in Auburn in 1947.
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